You Can Do It (be a student online presenter, that is!)

“Let’s have an online conference,” I said
“Okay,” said my friendly Associate Dean
“Let’s make it really big,” I said
“Good idea,” came the reply
That was in September. We set a date – June 30th, and decided that it would take place over a week. Now it is only six months away and we have started work in earnest. Unusually, this is not aimed primarily at giving academics a chance to talk to each other, or even postgraduate students, but rather is aimed at our 30,000 or so undergraduates. Quite an undertaking?
Let me give you some background. As I have spoken about previously studying at The Open University can be an isolating experience. Our students have to dig in for a six year haul. A few do get to the end more quickly, many do not, and can take up to 10 or more years to complete. The major problem for our students (which I assume is true for all distance learners and many part-time students) is motivation. It’s not that our students lack motivation, but rather that they have to sustain it for a long time and for the most part, in isolation.
I think all of us know how demoralising it can be to feel that everybody is doing better than you are. These feelings of inadequacy are particularly acute amongst students making them very susceptible to stories from other students who are finding the course easier, completing their assignments more efficiently and getting better grades than any lecturer awards. I can well remember sitting in coffee bars of Cardiff Students Union (where I did my degree) and listening to students who claimed to be better read, better informed and better marked than the rest. Perhaps they were but if I’m honest few of those people got Firsts!
The more astute amongst us labelled these people for what they were: bull-shitters. But, I wasn’t aware until much later what an insidious effect these people could have.
Now, imagine that your only source of information is a forum where you are a little scared to post in case your ‘stupidity’ is exposed. Imagine the effect of reading posts by students who claim to be weeks ahead, and getting grades in the 90%’s. In the coffee bar situation, it is easy to find people that are doing worse than you, or to find people to tell you not to worry even if you are a bit behind. It’s also relatively easy to find somebody, often a fellow student or one in the year above, to explain the bits you don’t get.
For distance students the b-s effect is to increase your paranoia, to convince you that you are incapable of studying and eventually to convince you that you are a fraud. Once you internalise the idea that you are not capable of study, then it is a short step to passively withdrawing. In effect, you simply stop studying. Initially nobody will notice, why should they?
This is the background to our online conference. Called Student Connections, its aim is to bring students together in an environment where they can meet and talk about any topic that takes their fancy. However, this is to be a proper academic conference, and my Faculty colleagues have been generous in agreeing to be keynote speakers. So, yes, students can be presenters but they can also hear about some of our most ground-breaking research.
In order to make the most of the online environment we are in the process of putting together a multimedia programme that will be innovative and interactive. We will encourage students and our academic colleagues to think beyond the rather stale and predictable formats of most conferences to embrace audio-visual multimedia techniques which will make the conference both a great conference and a showcase for what, with a little imagination, e-learning might look like.

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